Greek artist Sofia Mitsola has long drawn inspiration from the goddesses and creatures of Greek mythology, but her latest solo show, Aquamarina: Crocodilian Tears at Pilar Corrias London, centres specifically around an epic of her own making. The story follows the adventures of two sisters, Aqua and Marina, who are depicted individually or entangled together. (Mitsola intends to publish the handwritten manuscript in a limited edition run at some point next year). Their appearances change slightly depending on the scene – their hair, for example, goes from a pearly shade of blonde to a fiery red – but they are visually defined by a retrospective gaze, their necks arced in awkward angles to look back in an expression that’s both coy and provocative. In Cooperative Hunting I & II, a black-and-white charcoal mural work, the sisters’ eyes are detached from their bodies, their watch a steady, looming presence within a chaos of writhing shapes and lines. Of course, the female gaze is already politically, socially, and artistically charged – Mitsola, like any woman artist (or any woman at all) already knows this. However, the works seem to engage in a more layered exploration of spectatorship, in a world of hyper-surveillance where we are all constantly both the observer and the participant; the creator and the consumer at once.
Standing in front of one particularly arresting large-scale painting of what appears to be some kind of decadent slumber party with nude women lounging while a grinning deity figure looms over them, I find myself thinking about Marina Abramovic. When I last spoke to the performance artist, we somehow strayed into the murky territory of discussing what makes art good or bad; for Abramovic, there’s no in-between. She told me that you can tell an artwork is good when you feel it drawing you from across the room, like eyes boring into your back, which I think is probably true. But it also made me think about the deluge of imagery that we experience every day, and how it causes us to lose sense of what we like because, in a way, we’re seeing too much. Mistola’s paintings seem to play on this razor edge: she presents us with a crowd of gigantic, fleshy, and alluring bodies who call out across the space, surrounding the viewer and asserting a powerful sense of self-awareness of their own presence, one that feels both ancient and acutely contemporary.
Take, for example, the painting Celestia Squamata, which is one of part of a triptych painting hanging in the basement gallery space. Together, the three works visualise the climax of Mitsola’s epic, when the sisters capture and kill their enemy Crocovelus Niloticus. As the middle painting, Celestia Squamata depicts the moment of “struggle,” but while we might expect some kind of violent tussle in a cloud of raised dust, Mitsola’s characters appear assembled in a comical, semi-seductive pose that could be the cover of an album by the likes of Cardi B. The red crocodile is upside down, squished between two gigantic naked bodies, one of which is holding a dagger in the casual way you might hold a handbag, while a third figure sits atop their shoulders, legs spread, voluptuous backside facing outwards. All of the figures have their heads turned back at the viewer, smiling deliriously with bared teeth.
This work – as with all of Mitsola’s paintings – deliberately invokes the notion of performance (both of identity and of painting itself) by composing a specific scene while simultaneously highlighting that scene’s own contrivance. The triptych paintings, for example, all take place against a starry sky with the characters assembled on what appears to be a stage, and framed within an arched structure that’s seemingly held up by two caryatids (sculpted female forms often used as columns in ancient Greece). As such, the works recall the history of Greek theatre, and specifically, the dramatic technique of tableau, but Mitsola breaks down the fourth wall through the direct gaze of her figures. They are playing a role within the scene while also acknowledging (or even laughing at) their own performance.
For those familiar with television’s Fleabag, the effect is much that of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s titular character, addressing “her secret friend.” However, the tactile and static medium of paint makes for an even more provocative experience; we cannot simply change the channel or scroll to the next image. In turn, Mitsola’s paintings demand and hold our attention, and in doing so, they bring our own agency into question.